Taking its narrative cues from the Neil Gaiman short story of the same name, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES wonders what would happen if a young punk discovered the presence of aliens on the streets of Croydon, against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1977 Silver Jubilee. While the punk attitude is delivered in spades, and plenty of quirky alien peculiarities (anal probes and all) are included, there is little substance to back up this style, and the coming of age, sci-fi, romance story struggles to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.
While the stuffy, conservative parents decorate their small suburb with banners and ready themselves to celebrate 25 glorious years under the yolk of her Maj Queen Lizzie, Enn (Tony Award winner Alex Sharp) and his mates Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) are blitzing past on their bikes, ruffling moustaches and inciting shocked muttering with their shabby clothing and anti-establishment hairdos, headed for a gig at the local punk-dive, managed by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman looking like David Bowie in Labyrinth and sounding like an Australian who has never met a cockney).
After a riot-inspiring set by local band The Dyschords, Enn and the boys trawl the streets looking for a decent after-party to crash, when unearthly music and strange lights draw them to a for-sale house. Inside, they find strange people swanning about in colour coded latex body suits, dancing oddly to the unusual music and performing some pretty advanced displays of group gymnastics. Vic is quickly led off by sultry seductress Stella (Ruth Wilson), John tries his hand at the dancing, and Enn wanders until he meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful, if slightly eccentric girl with whom he becomes infatuated almost instantly.
The chemistry between Sharp and Fanning helps a little to keep the otherwise disparate narrative in check.
While Zan confuses Enn with her cryptic talk of colonies and physical manifestations, Vic hurries back, having been on the business end of the aforementioned anal probe, and insists they make a speedy getaway. This point is where Gaiman’s original story ends, and the lack of source material is instantly apparent, as the plot spirals from its set path through a series of loosely connected scenes and sub-plots, none of which feels very cohesive. Throughout, the blossoming romance between Enn and Zan is a much needed constant, and the chemistry between Sharp and Fanning helps a little to keep the otherwise disparate narrative in check.
The individual scenes and sequences through which this relationship develops are all intriguing and interesting by themselves. It’s only when they are jammed together that the clear lack of direction becomes apparent. One minute, Enn and Zan are learning about each others’ way of life in an intimate, personal drama, the next, director John Cameron Mitchell leans more heavily into the sci-fi elements and runs the audience through the history of Zan’s cannibalistic traveller race in an original punk song performed by the two leads at Boadicea’s joint – the pulse-pounding, mind-bending mix of punk lyrics and sci-fi visuals perfectly captures the key themes, and is easily the highlight of the film.
The lack of development and quick dismissal show the veneer of punk to be just that: thin, and ultimately decorative.
With the rest of the story so thematically scattered, much of the weight of the film falls onto the shoulders of its central pairing, and the young actors do not disappoint. Enn is wide-eyed and deeply committed to the punk ethos; its clear that Sharp had great fun in his first time on a film set, and he brings plenty of goofy energy to the role. While it’s difficult to bring much charisma to a character who, by her own nature, is very stilted, Fanning does well to keep Zan relatable, and her rebellious relationship with Parent/Teacher Waldo (Tom Brooke) is distinctly reminiscent of that period of soul searching all teens go through, no matter which planet they’re from.
Plastered over this coupling, and drawing plenty of allegorical links with the plot, is the shiny veneer of the rise of punk in 1970’s England. In the beginning, it seems clear that the punk attitude will play a huge part in the film; from the block party, to the boys fashion, to the gig, everything is dripping with studded leather, spiky hair and safety pins. As the film progresses, however, and director John Cameron Mitchell steers through half a dozen different genres in as many minutes, the lack of development and quick dismissal show the veneer of punk to be just that: thin, and ultimately decorative.
The core Neil Gaiman story from which this film is adapted is a solid, simple sci-fi adventure, with quirky characters and plenty of charm. While the story threads are there to be expanded up, this adaption is unsure exactly which of those it wants to follow, so it just hedges its bets and follows them all. As it turns out, a punk, sci-fi, coming of age, body-horror, romantic comedy ends up feeling a little overstuffed, and even though some of those elements work, much like humans and aliens, it’s very difficult to make them co-exist peacefully.
Verdict: 3/5 Paddles